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Full text of "The sanity of William Blake"

-Sanity of 
W: il am Blake 

Grev 31 lacDonald, M.D. 






THE LIBRARY 

of 
VICTORIA UNIVERSITY 

Toronto 



The Sanity of William Blake 




From Blair's Grave 



Frontispiece 



The Sanity of 
William Blake 

By 

Greville MacDonald, M.D. 

Author of " How Jonas Found His Enemy," 
" The North Door," " The Ethici of Revolt," &c., <Src. 

With six illustrations of Blake's drawings 



"When thou seest an Eagle, thou seest a portion of Genius : 
lift up thy head ! " 



GEORGE ALLEN AND UNWIN, LIMITED 

Ruskin House, 40 Museum Street, London, W.C. I . 

1920. 



^r-N 

R 
H6 



to 



The following pages comprise the *ubtance 
of a lecture given before the Ruskin Union, 
November, 1907, now illustrated and amplified. 

New Itsue . i 1920 



7742 



The Sanity of William Blake 



AL, criticism is based upon some 
standard of convention. Yet, in 
spite of the fact that our edu- 
cation necessarily favours such 
standard, our instincts are often finely re- 
bellious in their repudiation of convention. 
And we secretly honour all who outdare 
custom, though we openly fear and perhaps 
deride them. The weakness of convention 
as a standard of criticism lies in this, that 
we are able to estimate a given work only 
so long as it falls within our educational 
experience ; whereas if it does not, there 
remains no system that will give it justice. 
How can one judge, say, of ethics in Mars, 
when he is entirely ignorant of its condi- 
tions ? or of habits in Mile End if he do 
not share its quite reasonable dislike of his 
own culture ? or of manners in May Fair 
when he can but envy, not emulate, its 



6 The Sanity 

comfortable morality ? We publicly pity 
and even pretend to despise all who are not 
of the fold ; yet in our hearts we often 
admire them. It is indeed curious. Though 
we know our conventions are but dummies 
of formalism, we cringe like very Pharisees 
before them and hug it to our hearts that 
we are as other men. Nevertheless, though 
the Gentiles defy our Gods, we grant them a 
right to live as long as they do not question 
our respectability or marry our daughters. 
Are they not picturesque, these outlaws, and 
do they not add to the gaiety of life ? Be 
they inspired poet or filthy fakir, sour- 
hearted Diogenes or pearly-toothed nautch 
girl, we gaze at them from afar and marvel 
even if we profit nothing by their example. 
In brief, those who are caged have mighty 
respect for those who fly ; if only, alas ! 
until some one shall bring the birds to earth 
with broken wing. The genius, the prophet, 
the poet, is necessarily in his work and 
mode of life outside the law that binds the 
masses into correct behaviour. Therefore 
he is beyond understanding, though the 
ignorant people may follow him from afar. 
He is beyond understanding, because few 
have virtue enough to gauge the uncon- 



of William Blake 7 

ventional virtues. The schools judge only 
by their standards of examination, and cast 
out a poet as unfit. The professions 
measure by the success of their sleekest 
members ; and, as it is a law of nature that 
the eccentric shall not survive, they starve 
him. The academies of Art can judge of 
nothing that is not so firmly and viciously 
correct that all fear of its kindling the 
imagination vanishes. Yet the schools might 
remember they were founded by men who 
would pity their present professors ; the 
learned societies, that they are stagnating 
for lack of great thinkers ; and the teachers 
of art, that while prating of genius they are 
perpetrating bathos. Even the churches 
scatter their bread upon the waters because 
they dare not eat it ; they have still faith 
enough to know they will not starve so long 
as that bread persists, as it ever will, in 
returning after many days. Unfortunately 
it is only after we have killed the prophets 
that their greatness dawns upon our close- 
hedged understanding. 

In a word, no man can faithfully criticize 
art only by the rules of that art. No man 
can measure the starry heights who believes 
that trigonometry is always sufficing. No 



8 The Sanity 

man can have any faith whatsoever who builds 
upon evidences. No one to come to the 
point before us can judge of another man's 
sanity who dares not risk, when the truth 
claims him, the world's scorn of his own 
sanity. 

And if we are to judge William Blake's 
sanity by the limited arguments of mind 
specialists, we shall most certainly find him 
lacking ; though we may wish the world 
were less sane if the loss of its wits would 
bring it nearer to the Kingdom in which 
Blake lived. 

But more than this. He was mad if we 
are to judge him by those many wise whose 
only idea of living in perfect sanity is to 
take in one another's washing, and yet not 
wash it in public. He was mad if no man 
may see further than his neighbours with- 
out the sanction of the Lunacy Commission ; 
if no man has right to prophecy ; if none 
may use terrific metaphor without being 
accused of coarse realism ; if none may call 
the devil black without being stigmatized as 
small-minded ; if none may light a candle 
without the sane world disputing his right 
to find road through the darkness. 

Moreover, Blake was undoubtedly mad if 



of William Blake 9 

we are to believe all that his apologists wrote 
to prove the contrary. Yet his critics have 
dealt most lovingly with him, and praised his 
cryptic flights of poetic fire, his marvellous, 
ineffable pictures. They have told us of his 
simple, true, and pious life, never wavering 
or over-sad, always staunch and hopeful ; of 
his terrific condemnation of enemies, his 
over-kindly criticism of friends. They 
have let us see his child-like yet huge- 
minded nature ; they have made us worship 
the singer for his prophecy, the painter for 
his music. Nevertheless, and please note 
this most extraordinary of facts, they have 
dared defend this man against himself and 
his own work. 

We are driven by his apologists, but not 
by his disciples, to this uncomfortable con- 
clusion : that if the dear William Blake 
was indeed sane, he was guilty in manner 
never before laid to the charge of the most 
hypocritical ; for while your average sinner 
may preach piety and live shamefully, 
William Blake, for the first time in the 
history of man, while living so absolutely 
virtuous a life that none but a drunken 
soldier ever accused him, and that falsely, 
yet wrote and preached impiety of many 



1 

10 The Sanity 

kinds and divers colours. If we study Mr. 
Swinburne we shall be asked to believe that 
our prophet wrote like a libertine, while 
living like a saint ; that, preaching infidelity, 
he was yet faithful beyond the manner of 
men. On the other hand, some of his most 
devoted interpreters compel us to believe 
that while he was actually teaching sublime 
truth, he surpassed even his interpreters in 
obscurity. At any rate, Messrs. Ellis and 
Yeats invite us to substitute an absolutely 
unintelligible mysticism for some of the 
grandest symbolic writing the world has 
ever produced. 

If such great authorities as these, to 
whom we are most deeply indebted for their 
real devotion to Blake, and yet whose dis- 
covery of Blake's system is more ingenious 
than important, adduce such equivocal evi- 
dence of his sanity, we are perhaps justified 
in questioning it. Yet upon a time, many 
years ago, it happened that I found a sane 
man in a lunatic asylum, his certificates of 
insanity being drawn up and endorsed by 
authorities legally qualified for the purpose, 
though certainly incompetent. And not in- 
frequently in the world's history a judicial 
verdict, instigated by a passionate multitude, 



of William Blake 1 1 

has crucified an innocent man. Similarly, 
though the critics' verdict on William Blake's 
sanity is entirely in his favour and on the 
whole not uncomplimentary, it is couched 
in such words as to leave in our minds only 
one alternative to condemning the defendant 
as mad, namely, to question his advocates' 
fitness. Stupid criticism and apologetic 
admiration will always be the stock-in-trade 
of pedagogic devotion, until man rejects 
once and for all the perennial fascination of 
paradox. Even the Christian theologies are 
based upon a system of discovering attri- 
butes in the Divine Nature not warranted 
by scripture, and then making lame apologies 
for Jesus Christ's inconsistencies. Blake 
certainly will not mind suffering with his 
Master, even if his critics resent classifica- 
tion with theologians. 

But let us inquire upon what grounds in 
general we base our estimate of sanity. 

For purposes of convenience we may 
divide the public into two great classes, the 
sane and the insane. The sane, as will be 
supposed, are the majority. Their voice, 
they are for ever assuring one another, is 
the voice of God. And they append to this 
creed the corroborative law of Nature : 



12 The Sanity 

The Fit alone shall survive and Devil take the 
hinder-most. Considering which, they behave 
on the whole rather decently among them- 
selves. But they are certain of only one 
thing and a most important that the par- 
ticular minority to which they are opposed 
are so stark mad that the wonder is that 
they are not stark naked also. 

And one remarkable point of distinction 
between these two classes is this : that the 
sane majority find the language provided 
for them by their country's traditions vastly 
in excess of their needs, while the insane 
minority are for ever discontent with their 
native tongue because of its total insuffici- 
ency to express what they feel and know, the 
visions they see and believe in. These, 
though they have the whole wealth of cul- 
ture at command, are nevertheless for ever 
seeking and finding new forms of expres- 
sion, but often only to discard them because 
they fail to express the truth. It is these 
who paint uplifting pictures the wealthy can 
never possess, whatever they pay for them ; 
who sing divine songs, as did William 
Blake, for fashion to laugh at ; who make 
wooden fiddles wail passionately, as did 
Joachim, whom even the quite sane applaud. 



of William Blake 13 

The more marked the success of the larger 
class, the more evident become their limita- 
tions. The more surely the smaller dis- 
covers the restricted possibilities of language, 
art, music, the more certain is it that they 
have understanding of the deeps. Indeed, 
one may affirm it to be axiomatic in the 
logic of sublime thought that those alone 
touch truth who utter it in word, line, or 
melody, too profound even for their own 
understanding. Surely some must herein 
reach the very pinnacle of insanity ! 

The former class comprises the people of 
Facts, the latter those of Ideas. 

The class of Facts includes the bulk of 
the busy world. It also holds the men of 
scientific pursuit ; for these devote their 
lives to the discovery and classification of 
facts. To this end they rightly seek to 
simplify language and eliminate from it all 
metaphor, idiom, or symbol that might dis- 
tract the mind from the rigid import of its 
words. They would make their language 
as near the mathematical as possible and, 
wherever it can be done, employ formula and 
syllogism in place of appeal to instinct, so 
as to render their conclusions self-evident. 
But even this inexpansive system, in its en- 



14 The Sanity 

deavour to be truthful, reveals an essential 
untruthfulness ; for it is constantly com- 
pelled to disregard individual claims and 
ideal characteristics for the sake of giving 
weight to its factual generalizations. To 
classify and define is easy ; and it has for 
some people the supreme advantage of dis- 
counting the value of higher thought. To 
discover the untruthfulness of scientific ex- 
pression when dealing with matters that 
forbid definition and measurement, often 
requires of the scientific teacher a very 
genius of honesty. When, for instance, 
the biologist assures us that we must regard 
the bird as an aberrant form of reptile, 
and when he sets before us the array of 
facts upon which he justifies his claim, which 
facts there is no disputing, we understand 
him and his classification of the bird and 
the reptile so clearly that we have no diffi- 
culty in classifying himself. He belongs 
mind and soul to Facts. But when that 
genius arises, who, while giving full value 
to the evidences of the museum and the 
dissecting-room, can avoid the contamina- 
tion of his soul, and sing yes, sing of the 
lark's supremacy to the law of gravity, and 
in this song uplift man's ever-young soul 



of William Blake 1 5 

into the empyrean of the Holy Spirit, the 
world of learning will begin to undo some 
of its mischief-making. 

But the second of the two classes which 
we are considering, that of Ideas as dis- 
tinguished from Facts, instinctively resents 
the class-room methods of ocular demon- 
stration. No less intent than the man of 
science upon teaching, and no less striving 
to be honest in all his dealings, the idealist, 
just because of such honesty, rejects formula 
and syllogism ; not because these have not 
their place and need, but because in virtue 
of their very completeness they seem to 
claim that no teaching is possible save 
through their ministrations. The idealist 
claims that thought explores regions where 
the words self-evident, tangible, demon- 
strable, have no meaning ; where even the 
concrete white chalk and blackboard have no 
use. " In what he leaves unsaid," declared 
Schiller, " I discover the master of Style." 
This is very near to Blake's "seeing through, 
and not with the eye." And if style is 
indicated by what is left unsaid, imagination 
is indicated by the perception of what is not 
seen, and often but pointing to it, rather 
than telling it. So the idealist Blake 



1 6 The Sanity 

discards the algebraical equation, the logical 
argument; and in place of them his only 
method of teaching is Appeal. 

Appeal to what ? To that very con- 
sciousness in man of deeps in his existence 
which science has not fathomed, but which 
the greatest teachers touch with their poetry, 
their music, their paintings, and call into 
conscious life. He appeals to the instinctive 
knowledge of the child that the lark shares 
no place with reptile, the authorities not- 
withstanding. If there be in us " thoughts 
that lie too deep for tears," how greatly 
truer is it that there be deeps within or 
around the nature of life too profound for 
utterance, but which, not the less, are 
responsible for, directive of, indeed inspiring, 
our outward and visible show of life. 
These deeps are felt rather than known. 
They are of the emotions rather than the 
intellect. The man of art is more conscious 
of them than the schoolman because he lives 
more in their inspiration. And living thus 
in life of vaster reality than that of the 
getting and holding of Facts, of bowing 
to them, of chaining his soul to their glitter, 
he sees that from these same deeps all men 
arise and therefore have some consciousness 



of William Blake 1 7 

of them, even if they deny it. It is to this 
consciousness that Blake makes appeal. 
Because of it he knows he must reject the 
ways and manners of the schools. 

Indeed, the way of the imaginative artist 
is the way of the child. He rejects his 
facts as too painfully trivial to be worth 
attention as such, though he uses them right 
freely and truthfully in his own fashion. 
But he strips them of all precision so as to 
disabuse his public of any supposition that 
he uses them as argument or evidence. The 
anatomy of the lark and its biological 
position are entirely irrelevant facts to the 
true poet who appeals to the greater life in 
our hearts. To him facts lose their gravity, 
words their precision ; they rise upon the 
wings of the bird, and scatter themselves for 
harvest, as the lark's song reaches ever wider 
realms of earth as he mounts into heaven. 
And this is the way with the child. He 
cannot easily comprehend the ways of men, 
to whom the only serious things are money 
and means, success and failure. And his 
soul, a power growing daily in its supremacy 
to mere things of matter, because blossoming 
out of the abyss of eternal potentialities, 
almost declines to be happy unless using the 



1 8 The Sanity 

things of life as mere symbols of its 
spiritual consciousness, its spiritual desire 
for mastery. 

Each of these points in classification 
Blake's best critics would, I think, freely 
allow. Nevertheless, seemingly because 
they lack courage of conviction, they quail 
before his mightiest utterances. They have 
most signally failed in establishing his sanity, 
because they could not understand the 
sublimity of his power. Confronted even 
by such of his best-known works as The 
Marriage of Heaven and Hell, or The Visions 
of the Daughters of Albion, they have slunk 
away from the master to lose their identity 
among the foolish and angry multitude, 
thinking it impossible for the cock to crow. 

So that we have two duties before us, 
first to let the more doubtful understand 
how very specially sane was Blake's insan- 
ity, and secondly to let some of us latter- 
day disciples realize that health of heart is 
essential if we would scale the snow-clad 
pinnacles. Blake's purity of soul and sim- 
plicity of mind were his claims to greatness, 
his secret of appeal. And I think it will be 
among the thoughtful and unlearned, rather 
than the critical and scholarly, that the great 



of William Blake 1 9 

man will at last find sympathy and true 
understanding. 

But to grasp the true worth of Blake's 
message, we must enquire still further into 
the sanity of the multitude. And to this 
end it will prove convenient to subdivide 
the sane class into three, though they over- 
lap and intermingle. 

(i.) The sanity of the first is measured by 
their limitations in seeing. We appoint 
perhaps as their vestal virgin a certain 
servant-girl of Samuel Palmer, that brilliant 
painter-etcher and most devoted disciple of 
Blake. She had declared in the kitchen, and 
solely on the strength of her own keen- 
eyed perspicacity, that her master must be 
mad, because he would recite poetry to him- 
self and had hung on the drawing-room 
walls, she declared, two framefuls of tailor's 
patterns. The accusations looked grave 
indeed. And we quite justify the maid's 
election to the sacred vestal-virginship, when 
we learn that these tailors' patterns were 
some of William Blake's masterpieces, to 
wit, his only attempts at wood-engraving, 
the celebrated Pastorals ! This first sub- 
division of the class of Facts holds as its 
maxim that if things look more like what 



2O The Sanity 

interests us than what they are, then what they 
are is of no account whatever. For, as tailors' 
patterns, the Pastorals were distinctly fail- 
ures ! If a man looks like money, his 
moral nature is of no importance. If a 
picture suggests that it would look well 
over the new Sheraton sideboard, then the 
furniture dealer alone can estimate its value. 
If Pan's pipes look as though they are but 
reeds, then Pan's music is moonshine, and 
so forth. 

(ii.) Then there is the second great sub- 
division : those who judge by rule and plumb. 
For these, scholarship alone knows what 
is good, and intellect reigns supreme. Any 
one is eligible for the post of high-priest to 
this class, if only he despises Blake because 
he could not draw. In general he will 
measure Pan's excellence by the daily number 
of hours he practises his pipes and the ex- 
pensiveness of the master who taught him. 
Blake's Pastorals will be condemned because 
they are different from all other wood- 
engraving ; because he was such a master of 
his keen-edged chisel that he dared make it 
breathe and laugh and sing ; because, in- 
stead of quoting authorities, he appeals to 
the instinctive feeling after beauty that lies 






Wood Cuts from Thornton's Virgil 



To face p. to 



of William Blake 2 1 

potential in even quite sane people's souls ; 
because he gives us no excuse for exclaiming, 
" How true is Blake to the masters ! How 
accurate his drawing ! How wise in him to 
read our thin sanity through and through, 
and yet hardly ruffle it ! " These Pastorals 
invite no criticism. They make Appeal. 
And when that Appeal finds response in our 
hearts, we know that language must fail us, 
though we see our friend's eyes shine and 
we fear our own will overflow. The maxim 
of this second subdivision of the mighty 
sane is that in art no thing can ever do more 
than the average things have hitherto done ; 
and that if the imagination is to be allowed 
any play whatever, every care must be taken 
to show that technical excellence everywhere 
takes precedence, so that its heavy hand shall 
slap the face of any man who would rather 
seek light than find satisfaction. 

(iii.) Then a third subdivision of the sane 
comprises those who take it for granted that 
the man of experience sees further than the child 
whose glory it is to discount the value of 
facts. Any pedant will do to flatter these 
from his pulpit. The child values facts 
chiefly as playthings. A stick and a rag 
shall become a living baby and make appeal 



22 The Sanity 

to the deeps of maternal tenderness that lie 
sleeping in the darling's soul. It is quite 
certain to her that her arms are made for 
rocking this baby rather than for useful 
sewing. Again, the boy's nursery chairs 
can be wild horses at any moment. Thus 
employed, they are surely of saner service 
than when exacting good behaviour ! Child- 
legs are for dancing, rather than walking ; 
voice for laughing and crying, rather than 
the multiplication table ; mind for asserting 
power in building or destroying, rather than 
for the rule of three. The child possibly 
has some instinctive knowledge of the 
clouds of glory whence he came ; which 
clouds, if they mean anything, mean that 
the worth of life is measured rather by the 
poor child's faculty of inventing a symbol 
of motherhood than by the millionaire's 
purchase of human labour and his scientific 
modes of doing even better without it. 
The child fights and rebels against the rule 
of three and the rule of the world, until his 
imagination, that holy quality without which 
soul has no life, is broken : until he learns 
to live by bread alone. The maxim of 
this third class stands thus : that the whole 
purpose of education is to teach the hart to desire 



of William Blake 2 3 

no more the water-brooks. And it brings us 
right up to the clue that leads to the under- 
standing of William Blake. 

He was a child throughout his life ; but 
there was built upon this foundation of 
sublime insanity a mighty superstructure or 
heroic endurance and manly fidelity to the 
thing he knew to be true ; of patient forti- 
tude and womanly tenderness towards the 
weak and suffering. His power of scorn, 
that mighty weapon, and his potent pity, so 
lavishly given, had not developed the gentle 
boy into the adorable man, but that he 
never left his childhood behind him. Hence 
largely the sane world's dislike of his 
manners and the common belief that he 
died in Bedlam. 

This fact of Blake's childlike nature 
makes it easy to understand how it is that 
many, even of those who are but little 
tainted with the vulgar sanity, claim that 
his intellect could not always be trusted. 
But I can find no evidence anywhere in his 
painting or his writing that, where clear 
intellect was needed, he could not supply 
more of it and fresher than most men of 
learning. His grasp of facts, his right 
estimate of their real value, his pity for the 



24 The Sanity 

human hearts they claw and defile, are 
nowhere better manifest than in his now 
classic Proverbs of Hell. They are models 
of consistency untainted by that smug pro- 
verbial philosophy which seeks to justify a 
comfortable if sneaking morality. They 
need some study, but are worth it for their 
ennobling help. They let us into the deeps 
of Blake's own piety, his simple faith, his 
scorn of worldly wisdom. With these his 
life, his work, his ideals, are all absolutely 
consistent. I am not sure that consistency 
is not the finest test of sanity, just as 
incoherency is the final proof of aberration. 
" Listen," he says, " to the fool's reproach : 
it is a kingly title." "The fool sees not the 
same tree that a wise man sees." Though 
his rage against iniquity is aboriginally 
simple and childlike, and is certainly not 
always level-headed, it is never divorced 
from reason ; and, consistently with his 
Christianity, he could nobly forgive. Wit- 
ness his appeal to Stothard for renewal of 
friendship after Stothard had, at the treach- 
erous Cromek's instigation, stolen his idea 
of the Canterbury Pilgrims picture. Though 
he believed in the justice of righteous rage, 
he knew its energy must be bounded by 



of William Blake 25 

reason, or the demon hate would claim the 
just man for his own. Witness The Poison 
Tree. These proverbs are epitomes of truth 
and wisdom. Thus "The cut worm forgives 
the plow " at first looks obscure ; yet it sums 
up in a simple figure the wisdom of Job. 
How he had rejoiced in his inspirations, 
how he had torn himself in his hard labours, 
only the poet can understand who realizes 
at once the service and despotism of 
language ; and Blake put this law of life 
into the words " Joys impregnate, sorrows 
bring forth." His faith in the imagination, 
its towering supremacy over mere intellect, 
may be hard at first to understand. " One 
thought fills immensity," and " Everything 
possible to be believed is an image of truth," 
and " Truth can never be told so as to be 
understood and not be believed " ; these 
give insight into the deeps, and compel us, 
if nothing else could, to follow and learn. 
Nor can we fail to admit, before he has done 
with us, that his seraphic intellect has laid 
upon our mouth the living coal, and taken 
away the iniquity of denial. 

But I must not yet leave my evidences of 
Blake's childlike nature, because in it lay his 
marvellous power of appeal. His faith in 



26 The Sanity 

impulse, instinct, energy, imagination, as 
against reason, prudence, and facts, is essen- 
tially childlike, yet the very antithesis of 
childish. The Appeal does not merely find 
echo in our hearts, but is a king nightingale 
in the darkening grove, who, shouting aloud 
his own faith, calls out the voice that was 
sleeping in multitudes ; or to put the meta- 
phor in Blake's own words : 

Thou hearest the nightingale begin the song of 

Spring ; 
The lark, sitting upon his earthy bed-nest, just as 

the morn 
Appears, listens silent ; then, springing from the 

waving cornfield, loud 
He leads the Choir of Day. Mi/ton, ii. p. 3 1 . 

The Songs of Innocence express the 
holiest impulses of untutored childhood, 
the eager love of life in all things, the 
imaginative recognition of an ethical basis in 
life, the instinctive understanding of things 
that are true and practical in religion, the 
belief that " everything that lives is holy." 
I would quote, had I the time, "The Lamb," 
" The Chimney Sweeper," " The Divine 
Image," " On Another's Sorrow." 

Then upon these convictions that the 
child is father of the man, Blake builds his 



of William Blake 27 

lifelong glory of faith, that the man is father 
of his country and must save it. For this 
is the secret of his mighty work Jerusalem^ 
the spiritual England ; this is the inspiration 
of her maternal weeping over the chaining of 
her sons. He sees everywhere the triumph 
of idolatry over worship, the letter of the 
law over the spirit, money over flesh and 
blood, reason over imagination. And, like 
all true prophecy, his words are not for his 
own age only, but make appeal to the men 
of every generation. Prophecy indeed is the 
appeal of the eternal to the people of time. 

The whole argument of the 'Jerusalem 
is summed up in those three memorable 
aphorisms in the opening of Heaven and 
Hell y words which are childlike in their dis- 
regard of philosophic authority and its futile 
presentation of the absolute ; and yet they 
are profound in essential wisdom. 

"(i) Man has no body distinct from his 
soul. For that called body is a portion of 
soul discerned by the five senses, the chief 
inlets of soul in this age. 

" (2) Energy is the only life, and is from 
the body ; and reason is the bound or out- 
ward circumference of energy. 

" (3) Energy is eternal delight." 



28 The Sanity 

Now I want to draw your attention 
especially to these three aphorisms, because 
the critics, notable among them Mr. Swin- 
burne, have generally held that Blake's was 
a gospel of licence. And I am the more 
willing to insist upon their real meaning in 
connection with the magnificent but most 
cryptic of his prophetic books, Jerusalem, 
because this, more than any other, exposes 
him to the charge of incoherencies. 

"(i) Man has no body distinct from his 
soul." All systems of religion have taught 
that man possesses a soul, whereas Blake 
would have us understand that the reverse 
is the case : Edmund Spenser had long be- 
fore expressed the same truth thus : 

For of the Soul the Body Form doth take 
For Soul is Form and doth the Body make. 

Or to quote certain lines of Blake from 
Jerusalem^ more cryptic but signifying the 
same idea : 

In great eternity every particular Form gives forth 

or Emanates 
Its own peculiar Light, and the Form is the Divine 

Vision 
And the Light is his Garment. This is Jerusalem 

in every Man, 
A Tent and Tabernacle of Mutual Forgiveness. p. 54. 




From The Book of Job 



To face p. 28 



of William Blake 29 

And again, in the Milton we read : 

The Oak is cut down by the axe, the Lamb falls by 

the knife. 
But their Forms eternal exist forever ! Amen ! 

Hallelujah ! 
For God Himself enters Death's door always with 

those that enter, 
And lies down in the Grave with them. p. 32, extra. 

Then he goes on to remark that the body 
in its ordinary conception is but that por- 
tion or product of soul which we can see 
and touch. Hence it comes that when we 
have left our childhood and have reached 
those years of discretion which so sedulously 
forbid the sacramental bread, when we have 
come to trust those five senses for what 
they are not worth, when we see not through 
but merely with our eyes, we disbelieve in 
anything but ocular evidence. Therefore 
we believe more in the body than the soul, 
though many for religious purposes still 
claim that the soul does really exist, if 
merely as a nebulous appendix which we 
can for the present most happily dispense 
with. And then this aphorism ends with a 
touch of bitter satire on the philosophy of 
Locke, the most trusted philosopher in that 
eighteenth century. This philosophy Blake 



30 The Sank 1 

scorns : the soul, in this age, is nothing 
more forsooth than a by-product of experi- 
ence contributed by the five senses ! He 
frequently refers to the soul being impri- 
soned in the five senses ; they are merely 
inlets for experiences, not outlets to the 
Eternal. 

The second of these aphorisms is a little 
hard to understand unless we already know 
something of what the Master is driving at. 
We must remember that the Marriage of 
Heaven and Hell is a conglomeration of 
bombs, each accurately compounded and 
craftily timed to hurl at the heads of all in- 
tellectual, religious, and state tyrants. Their 
dynamite is for the most part scathing satire, 
and will scarcely have more effect in reform- 
ing the respectable criminals who are mighty 
in their seats than an anarchist's bomb will 
instil mercy into a grand-duke's heart. But 
Blake says elsewhere : " When I tell a truth 
it is not to convince those who do not 
know it but to protect those who do." And 
his sort of bomb hurts not the faithful, but 
invigorates. 

" Energy is the only life, and is from the 
body." This is a slap to the orthodox, one 
would think, and a paradox to the former 



of William Blake 3 1 

condemnation of the senses. He would 
save those orthodox from condemning any 
part of our nature. Energy is divine im- 
pulse, we elsewhere learn, the work of the 
imagination, and the desire for it is the light 
that lighteth every man who comes into the 
world. It is the only life. It is at once work, 
conquest, and worship. But its means is 
the oft-despised body without which nothing 
is done. The resurrection of the body was 
an idea essential in Blake's creed. And 
while he realizes more powerfully than any 
prophet before him how " the gross flesh 
hems us in," he honoured his servant, his 
" body the ass." Thus in Jerusalem^ p. 55, 
he says : " Let the human organs be kept 
in their perfect integrity, at will contracting 
into worms, or expanding into Gods." A 
message surely that for all time should be 
the watchword of the man of science ! 
The worm is the symbol of small, sluggish, 
often dormant, beginnings of unknown 
power. One day it expands into butterfly 
beauty, and the eternal miracle is aflame. 
And man should know more of his seedlike 
energies locked away in the cabinet of his 
body. At will should the poet be able to 
call down his larks from the sky to find 



32 The Sanity 

grubs for their nestlings. At will should 
the microscopist who gropes among un- 
profitable secrets be capable of flight in the 
empyrean. At times should the sharp- 
fingered anatomists, who 

Stumble all night over bones of dead, 

be capable of rising in supplication to the 
eternal sun of life. 

Now, lest this appeal for the dignity of 
life's energy should be mistaken, lest indeed 
people like Mr. Swinburne and others 
should ever accuse him of endorsing licence, 
Blake appends to this aphorism these memor- 
able words : 

" And reason is the bound or outward 
circumference of energy." In other words 
and in the teaching of every other work 
of Blake this instinctive energy, this im- 
aginating birthright of man, is worse than 
useless to us if we do not use it aright. 
This energy is nothing without noble pur- 
pose. Life without object, imagination 
without reason, energy without order, are 
mighty powers prostituted and in process of 
ceasing to be. "He who desires but acts 
not breeds pestilence." "Sooner murder an 
infant in its cradle than nurse unacted 



of William Blake 3 3 

desires." These are two of the Proverbs 
that are so stupidly misunderstood ; and 
even a great poet has mistaken the metaphor. 
The divine energy of life must be allowed 
its wing. " When thou seest an eagle thou 
seest a portion of genius ; lift up thy head ! " 
In other words, do not dare to think you 
can cage an eagle. It cannot be done ; for 
an eagle caged is but divine energy prosti- 
tuted to the tyranny of man ; it ceases to be 
a portion of genius and is become a product 
of constraint, and a lie to the living truth. 
It is life robbed of purpose. Everywhere 
Blake is crying the same truth in the wilder- 
ness, and no one hears. Life robbed of 
liberty to fulfil breeds pestilence : this is the 
key to The Daughters of Albion. The glory 
of all desire, of all inspiration, is its 
purpose ; and if you seek to restrain these 
tigers of fire by the " horses of instruction," 
they become "tigers of wrath." This is the 
key to the books of Los and of Urizen. 
And both must be opened if we would enter 
the disordered treasure-house of the Jeru- 
salem. Blake is absolutely and persistently 
assertive of the truth of life's purpose. 
Mr. Swinburne is wholly misleading us ; 
and his puppet Art for Art's sake, though he 



34 The Sanity 

would father the puny abortion upon our 
prophet, is hateful to Blake. Art is for the 
ennobling of life, for the manifestation to 
man of the worth of life and the glory of 
the heavens. Art without purpose is art 
with a worm in its soul, and a worm that 
breeds pestilence. " Truth has bounds, 
error none," Blake declares in the book of 
Urizen. And we dare not forget this awful 
doom of forgetting the purpose of our 
energy. Yet if truth has bounds, if energy 
must have reason for its outward circum- 
ference, we need have no fear of reason's 
despotism ; for our horizon is hedged in 
only by the limitations of our energies. 
Reason is minister to the imagination, and 
must never become its master. 

For all are men in eternity, rivers, mountains, cities, 

villages. 
All are human, and when you enter into their bosom, 

you walk 
In Heavens and Earths ; as in your bosom you bear 

your Heaven 
And Earth, and all you behold : though it appears 

without, it is within, 
In your imagination, of which this world of Mortality 

is but a shadow. 

Jerusalem, iii. p. 71. 



of William Blake 3 5 

These lines also are from Jerusalem. 
Compare with them the words in Heaven 
and Hell, " All deities reside in the human 
breast ;" and the psalmists cry to the people, 
" Ye are Gods, and all of you are children 
of the Most High ! " 

And again let me quote : 

The Mundane Shell is a vast concave Earth, an 

immense 
Hardened shadow of all things upon our Vegetated 

Earth, 
Enlarged into dimensions and deformed into indefinite 

space, 
In twenty-seven Heavens and all their Hells, and 

chaos 
And ancient night and Purgatory. It is a cavernous 

Earth 
Of labyrinthine intricacy, twenty-seven folds of 

opaqueness, 
And finishes where the lark mounts ! Mi /ton, p. 16. 

Is not this truly terrific poetry ? Does it 
not recall St. Paul's passionate prayer ? 
" O wretched man that 1 am ! who shall 
deliver me from the body of this death ? " 

This second aphorism indeed is the theme 
of all the prophetic books, as indeed it is 
the theme, if not of the songs of Innocence, 
at least of many of the songs of Experience, 



36 The Sanity 

some of which, like the prophetic books, 
are more than a little cryptic. The deities 
that reside in the empire of our hearts are 
in these ages at warfare. Our salvation 
looks almost hopeless, and our beloved 
country is groaning under the golden hoof 
and forgetting her inspiration. Her energy 
that should be her eternal delight is become 
a bond-slave to wealth and greed. The 
peasant no more ploughs, nor does the 
maiden spin ; for both are willing to sell 
their energies into slavery, that the master 
who fattens and kills them may himself find 
hell. The eternal delight that is man's 
birthright is smelted into money that can 
buy nothing. The maiden has choice only 
to die in a naphtha-hell or to breed the 
pestilence that comes of forbidding energy 
its purposeful outcome. The upshot of 
the warfare in our cosmogony between the 
spirit and the matter, between purpose and 
the wilderness which gives it opportunity of 
conquest, between the fire of the Holy 
Ghost and the wet blanket of respectability, 
between imagination and reason, poetry and 
science, mastery and cringing humility ; the 
upshot of the warfare looks to us now, who 
see not the end and yet are still something 



of William Blake 3 7 

purposed in our energy, wellnigh hopeless. 
The eternal delight of energy, even ours 
who groan, is prostituted into mere wanton 
pleasures ; and, not content with our own 
unsought damnation, we damn everything 
we touch ; even in hell we must have 
companions. And joy will not be won for 
our energy until the deities regnant in our 
hearts understand their respective duties and 
the needs of the empire they inhabit. 

They must renew their brightness, and their dis- 
organized functions 

Again reorganize till they resume the image of the 
human, 

Co-operating in the bliss of Man, obeying his will, 

Servants to the infinite and eternal of the human 
form. 

Vala, ix. 1. 369. 

Seemingly these subsidiary gods cannot 
believe that their freedom is won not by 
tyranny over one another, but by obedience 
to the eternal purpose of their dominant 
master, the Will of the Man. Just as the 
material universe may be said to be com- 
pounded of many forces and attributes, so 
the eternal heart of man is compounded of 
many laws and is the habitation of many 
gods. Even as material phenomena may 



The Sanit; 

all be consequent upon one embracing energy 
of many manifestations, so is the everlast- 
ing manhood at once responsible for and 
master of its self-deities. With all his 
terrible denunciation, denunciation that is 
expressible only in the most terrible meta- 
phor, Blake, like every true prophet, is 
optimist ; because he believes in God and 
therefore in man, because he believes that 
with both all things are possible. And his 
optimism cannot doubt that his beloved 
England will yet find her salvation. 

And did those feet in ancient time 
Walk upon England's mountains green ? 
And was the holy Lamb of God 
On England's pleasant pastures seen ? 

And did the countenance divine 
Shine forth upon our clouded hills ? 
And was Jerusalem builded here 
Among these dark Satanic Mills ? 

Bring me my bow of burning gold ! 
Bring me my arrows of desire ! 
Bring me my spear ! O clouds unfold ! 
Bring me my chariot of fire ! 

I will not cease from mental fight, 
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand, 
Till we have built Jerusalem 
In England's green and pleasant land. 

Preface to Milton. 



of William Blake 39 

But now, having dared suggest to you 
something of Blake's radical idealism, I 
must, in fairness to those from whom we 
differ, let you see what grounds, besides the 
misinterpretations of his friends, there may 
be for suspecting Blake of madness. This 
very book of Jerusalem is indeed a strange 
medley of passionate poetry and catalogued 
bathos. We have pages and pages of stuff 
that were not worth reading, but for the 
shining gems hidden among the rubbish. 
Yet, as if to make amends for the waste of 
fine language, the illustrations to this book 
are more helpful in elucidating the text than 
in many of Blake's writings. Often it looks 
as if, although his drawings in general are 
every one descriptive of some idea peculiarly 
his own, they do not correspond with the 
text of the book in which they are found. 
Thus the extraordinary, but far from beau- 
tiful, picture in the Marriage of Heaven and 
Hell of the Birth of the Imagination, and 
the fleeing away of the people in dread of 
such a prodigy, is only quite intelligible 
when we read a description of the dire event 
in the Daughters of Albion. But in the Jeru- 
salem the cuts belong much more nearly to 
the text,and manyare almost self-explanatory. 



4-O The Sanity 

In spite of the richly illustrated pages, 
however, we must admit that Blake's small 
power of criticizing his own work implies 
some lack of mental balance. This is the 
fault, I suppose, of the man of imagination 
undisciplined in the schools. The tigers of 
wrath ill brook the horses of intellect and 
devour them before submitting to their 
instruction. Yet the sun that illuminates 
Blake's spirit is not the less lofty or brilliant 
that it often seems as if in danger of being 
lost in the lawless jungle of his imagination. 
But even here, amidst masterful horrors and 
cringing monsters, the sun's rays penetrate 
with lovely brilliance. And if the apparent 
purposelessness of our prophet's vast weedi- 
ness seems often to justify the verdict of 
madness, we are again and again, while 
striving to find passage through the jungle, 
driven to exclaim that Blake's so-called 
madness is infinitely greater than our own 
sanity. For at any rate we find that he at 
least never loses sight of the sunlight, the 
great illuminant of nature ; while we, with 
our rushlights of convention, "our decency 
and custom starving truth," to quote Words- 
worth, our groping timidity and uncertain 
walking in our gloomy streets, think our 



of William Blake 41 

education and our musty records, our 
fearful theology and boastful superiority to 
enthusiasm, must keep us sane and give us 
power to criticize the jungle we hardly dare 
enter, despite its gleams of sunshine. 

And this much must be confessed, that 
the more patiently we study Blake, the more 
clearly are we convinced of his consistency. 
We find, if we keep close to him as he 
leads us through the jungle, the abyss, the 
empyrean, that the path is certain to him, 
and that he is guided by the stars no less 
than by the pitfalls he would have us 
fathom. He has but one purpose : to lead 
us out of the eternal jungle of our indi- 
vidual warfare with death. Of the path he 
is sure, and in his purpose he never falters 
or misses the light. Nevertheless the jungle 
is as much the outcome of natural law as 
pleasant pastures ; in their subjection to 
human purpose lies the difference. So what 
appears unprofitable in Blake's luxuriant 
imagination is but unprofitable perhaps from 
the point of view of our matter-of-fact 
utilitarian minds. He is but running wild 
like a child who feels that nursery restrictions 
are altogether immoral when judged from 
the standpoint of his need to live in the full 



42 The Sanity 

vigour of delight ; who feels that he must 
show the wise old people how they have 
forgotten the glory of life. So far as the 
Jerusalem serves any ordinary purpose, we 
may well consider it illogical and having 
but little bearing upon the practical needs 
and facts of life. And indeed, because a 
child's wild joy in liberty finds no place in 
an educational code, many will hold it to be 
inimical to the ideals of education, and 
therefore ill-purposed and lacking in sanity. 
Enthusiasm and imagination, unless severely 
curbed by convention and logic, are con- 
sidered by the majority as intellectually 
dangerous. Nevertheless undisciplined joy 
and boundless enthusiasm for the ideals of 
life are very real properties of life. Indeed, 
they come very near to being the simplest 
expression of life itself. And no wise man 
will quarrel with the poet's gifts, even 
if he do not love life enough to desire 
them. 

Charles Lamb, keenest and gentlest of 
critics, declares that, if a writer would be 
popular, 

He must not think or feel too deeply. If he 
has had the fortune to be bred in the midst of the 
most magnificent objects of creation, he must not 



of William Blake 43 

have given away his heart to them ; or if he have, 
he must conceal his love, or not carry his expres- 
sions of it beyond that point of rapture, which 
the occasional tourist thinks it not overstepping 
decorum to betray, or the limit which that 
gentlemanly spy upon Nature, the picturesque 
traveller, has vouchsafed to countenance. He 
must do this, or be content to be thought an 
enthusiast. Review of Wordsworth's Excursion. 

The whole question as to the sanity of 
the prophetic books lies in the question 
whether their images are inspired by definite 
ideals that can be expressed in no fitter way, 
whether, that is, the imaginative life is 
disciplined by purpose, by good to be won. 
Of this there can, I think, be no question 
whatever. 

Blake's imagination was essentially Gothic. 
Or perhaps, if I had more accurate know- 
ledge, I should say that in comparison with 
the more disciplined Gothic, his art was 
Byzantine. His hatred of fine faultless line 
and shallow harmony ; his love of roaring 
cavern depths and masses of mystic shadow ; 
his bold recognition, not to be gainsaid 
under penalty, of the interdependence of 
so-called right and wrong, of freedom and 
bondage ; recall Ruskin's description of the 



44 The Sanity 

Byzantine ideals in the Seven Lamps of 
Architecture : 

The rolling heap of the thunder cloud, divided 
by rents and multiplied by wreaths, yet gathering 
them all into its broad, torrid, and towering zone, 
and its midnight darkness opposite : the scarcely 
less majestic heave of the mountain side, all torn 
and traversed by depth of defile and ridge of rock, 
yet never losing the unity of its illumined swell and 
shadowy decline ; and the head of every mighty 
tree, rich with tracery of leaf and bough, yet 
terminated against the sky by a true line, and 
rounded by a green horizon, which, multiplied in 
the distant forest, makes it look bossy from above ; 
all these mark, for a great and honoured law, that 
diffusion of light for which the Byzantine orna- 
ments were designed. 

But I must take you back again for a 
moment to Blake's childlike nature. We 
discover in it certain inevitable faults of his 
virtue. His exaggerations in praise and 
blame with his often outrageous and ugly 
figures are alike explained by his lack of the 
gift of weighing evidences. Comparisons 
to him were odious : just as to the child 
who, when asked which of the two he loves 
better, insists that he loves both best. 
Comparison demands intellect and intellect 



of William Blake 45 

only. To Blake, such task was wellnigh 
impossible. Yet his instinctive valuation 
of things was so true that we can ill bear 
the thought of even his mere intellect 
judging them. For, had he possessed that 
critical faculty which is elicited only by 
patient submission to scholastic method, we 
most assuredly had never known this Jeru- 
salem. He hated going over his own work, 
as is known, because probably the very 
descent of his spirit to the level of mere in- 
tellectuality, as distinguished from creative 
labour, entirely changed the point of view ; 
it made the eagle's outlook seem quite 
inaccessible, and therefore of doubtful 
value. 

And this sort of suffering attends all 
genius that would reform its own offspring. 
Though Blake was no critic, he generally 
knew what was good and bad ; but, like the 
child again, he would judge their work by 
his love or dislike of the artists. His 
praise of Fuseli's and Flaxman's work was 
the inevitable consequence of their flattery, 
which lasted just so long as they could pick 
his brains. He even found great merit in 
Wainwright the poisoner's Academy picture, 
seemingly because Wainwright admired and 



46 The Sanity 

bought his books. But for that matter, 
Lamb too had admitted the gifted criminal 
to his circle. And Blake could condemn in 
scathing terms, as he did the Carraccis, 
Rubens, and even Reynolds ; while Cor- 
reggio he calls " a soft and effeminate and 
consequently a most cruel demon whose 
whole delight is to cause endless labour to 
whoever suffers him to enter his mind." 
Yet so fine was his appreciation, which does 
not mean criticism, that Charles Lamb, who, 
strangely enough, never met him, writes in 
1824 : 

His pictures one in particular, the Canterbury 
Pilgrims (far above Stothard's) have great merit, 
but hard, dry, yet with grace. He has written a 
Catalogue of them with a most spirited criticism 
on Chaucer, but mystical and full of Vision. His 
poems have been sold hitherto only in manuscript. 
I never read them ; but a friend of mine at my 
desire procured the ** Sweep Song. " There is 
one to a tiger, which I have heard recited, 
beginning, 

" Tiger, Tiger, burning bright, 
Through the deserts of the night," 

which is glorious, but alas ! I have not the book ; 
for the man is flown, whither I know not to 
Hades or a Mad-house. But I must look on him 



of William Blake 47 

as one of the most extraordinary persons of the 
age. E. V. Lucas's Life of Charles Lamb, Vol. II, 
p. 125. 

One inevitable consequence of his in- 
ability to compare critically his own work 
with accepted standards was the accusation 
of vanity ; a fault indeed, belonging pecu- 
liarly to childhood, and quite deserving the 
epithet childish. Thus he speaks of his 
own work as though it were all he meant it 
to be ; and, seeing that it was in his own day 
almost wholly unappreciated, he found it 
necessary to explain its merits to the public. 
Indeed, he unblushingly compares it with 
Raphael's. But a man like this, "as in- 
capable," Crabb Robinson assures us, " of 
envy as he was of discontent," was hardly a 
vessel for vulgar vanity. He was so deeply 
possessed by the truth of his work's purpose 
that he could not throw himself outside it to 
see how others would misunderstand his 
ardour. 

It is as if (to use Goethe's figure), having 
seen from within the cathedral of his own 
soul great glories shining through its rich- 
hued windows, he had then gone without, 
and found the stupid public staring at the 



48 The Sanity 

outside of the windows, declaring that, be- 
cause the sun was brighter outside, they 
were justified in laughing at the poet's tales 
of glories within. " You can admire," he 
might say, "your Carraccis and Correggios 
because they hit you in the eye with their 
paint-brushes and make you see lies strutting 
like dandies. You can even prate about 
Raphael, though you can no more learn the 
truth from his work than you can see beauty 
in mine. Yet we both have learned our art 
from the same school. And I know my 
work is true. You are incapable of seeing 
it, and therefore you call me vain and mad ! " 
Indeed, this child-nature is the clue to all 
his unintelligibility as well as his apparent 
vanity. It was never himself that Blake 
was so sure of; it was the truth of wha 
he would teach. 

Somewhat vain he was, 
Or seemed so, yet it was not vanity, 
But fondness, and a kind of radiant joy 
Diffused around him, while he was intent 
On works of love or freedom, or revolved 
Complacently the progress of a cause, 
Whereof he was a part ; yet this was meek 
And placid, and took nothing from the man 
That was delightful. Prelude, book ix. line 3 1 3 




From The iiook of Job 



of William Blake 49 

Thus Wordsworth of his friend General 
Beaupuy, the revolutionist ; and I cannot 
help feeling that they fit Blake. 

But I dare not leave my subject without 
saying something of this prophet's power 
of seeing visions, which power more than 
any other point in his character has exposed 
him to the charge of madness. But there is 
no real difficulty in understanding this gift, 
though its precise significance is not easy to 
define. The imagination, in taking concrete 
form for the sake of expressing what it feels, 
always goes through a process of visualizing. 
When, more especially, the imagination is 
dealing with purely abstract concepts, it has 
no other means of concentrating thought 
upon these concepts, still less of definitely 
teaching them, than the methods of symbolic 
representation. Thus, when Blake feels 
himself suddenly and mightily inspired with 
the eternal joy that must fill all created 
things in realizing the will of their Maker, 
he, for his own better understanding, as well 
as for his better means of expression, instinc- 
tively visualizes the words of Job," When the 
morning stars sang together, and all the sons 
of God shouted for joy." To him the words 
are an inspiration ; and the Holy Spirit, the 



50 The Sanity 

eternal indwelling power of God, makes 
this inspiration assume concrete form in the 
painter's eye. The words of Job are graphic 
enough : they are the poet's words indeed, 
and for many will suffice. But with Blake, 
the seer of Truth in things, the emotion for 
which Job finds words, finds form in pictorial 
art. He sees the sons of God, potent in 
wings, uplifted in thought, ordering their 
movements in sense of the everlasting har- 
mony, shouting together in their joy of 
life. Blake has seen his vision. And he 
must give it to us, as otherwise it would 
be worthless to him. For in matters of 
truth, the widow's cruse is the only measure 
of worth. Like her meal too, it must be 
given to whomsoever needs, even if the 
wilderness has to be searched for the 
hungry. 

I believe, if we could analyse the way by 
which the genius works, we should find that 
it is simply through seeing visions. 

We do not dub Shakespeare a visionary, 
because, I suppose, he fathers his visions 
upon his characters ; otherwise he could 
hardly have escaped the accusation when 
writing such words as these if he had de- 
clared that he had seen the vision : 




of William Blake 5 1 

Look how the floor of heaven 
Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold ! 
There's not the smallest orb that thou behold'st 
But in his motion like an angel sings, 
Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubims. 
Such harmony is in immortal souls. 
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay 
Doth grossly close us in, we cannot hear it. 

Merchant of Venice. 

Nor do we think Mozart's music inferior 
and unintellectual because, when asked by a 
friend what method he followed in compos- 
ing, he said simply, "All the finding and 
making only goes on in me as in a very 
vivid dream . . . whence and how that I do 
not know and cannot learn" (Hartmann's 
Philosophy of the Unconscious, Vol I, p. 279). 

Genius is something more than making use 
of materials we have collected, or experien- 
ces that we have won. It is the power of 
drawing upon our ancestral, our divine in- 
heritance, and realizing how this inheritance 
is one with the life of all things. It is 
indeed, in the rare souls of highest virtue, 
instinctive knowledge of the power of God 
Himself, and a natural understanding of how 
this power is potent in grub and butterfly, in 
the gladness of faith, in the anguish of broken 



52 The Sanity 

hopes. The genius, having this power 
in him as the secret of his own inspira- 
tion knows how this same secret orders all 
things. So that, for instance, he has know- 
ledge of the joy in all true sons of God, and 
sees their joy in a vision. He is one with 
the spirit that uplifts the skylark and makes 
him scatter his little song broadcast over the 
earth ; he sees the truth of it and sings him- 
self of it in glorious verse. With Blake 
the Imagination is the Life itself, the in- 
spiration of the Holy Ghost. 

And even in fiction the real genius 
surpasses altogether his actual experience of 
life and men. He knows them, and writes 
not of how he believes they would speak in 
this or that circumstance, but of what he 
has unconsciously visualized and therefore 
knows to be true of life. Indeed, he has 
visions of the men and women he is creat- 
ing, though he does not speak of his in- 
spiration in such words. He will tell you, 
and I speak of one friend of my own, that 
he saw this or that invented incident, and 
he therefore knows it is true. This vision- 
ary power is altogether different from the 
mere relation of events of which he may 
have been the spectator. It is the difference 



of William Blake 5 3 

between the genius of imagination with its 
symbolic presentation, and the talent of 
memory with its mimic reproduction. And 
so I take it are Blake's visions : not the 
substance that dreams are made of not the 
fanciful fears of the too impressionable 
child not the ghosts of the superstitious 
or the incoherent rhapsodies of the lunatic. 
Blake himself made sharp distinction be- 
tween terrifying ghosts, the delusions of a 
disordered stomach, and the visions of truth. 
He knew well, I must think, the psycho- 
logist's distinction between illusions of the 
senses and delusions of the mind a dis- 
tinction which the legal authorities admit as 
differentiating mere erratic brain-work from 
insanity. For as long as a man knows when 
he may be self-cheated, he is sane indeed. 
So long as he knows his visions are not 
concrete, or that his imagination must not 
be trusted to see in the dark, say, when he 
is driving a motor, not even the most 
unimaginative mental specialist would dare 
accuse him, because of his visions and 
imaginations, of being insane ; and this, 
although the said specialist loves to speak 
of a certain gift, which he is too poor to 
possess, as being akin to madness. 



54 The Sanity 

The genius, I say, knows that he must 
speak or sing or paint because, and only 
because, he has no other alternative what- 
soever. One man may look his hardest and 
honestest to find truth, so that, having found 
it, he may give it to others. But the 
genius, without looking, without being 
conscious of intent, sees things beyond the 
vision of men. The honest searcher may 
look deeply and laboriously into the mind 
of Blake, and, for all his honesty, may see 
but a reed shaken in the wind ; but those 
who have in them, as every one has to 
greater or less degree, the possibility of 
singing, will let the voice of the king 
nightingale awaken their own piping and 
make them too sing with great or faltering 
note, to the glory of the heavens. Though 
the genius may fail for lack of faith, though 
he may so prostitute his gifts that they 
breed iniquity, they are yet of the Holy 
Spirit ; and no study of man and nature by 
observation, no devotion even of the life to 
the service of man, will find the great gift 
of seeing visions and telling to men the 
truth of them. Nevertheless, Blake at 
least declared in most emphatic word that 
the seeing of visions was not a special gift 



of William Blake 5 5 

to him or other seers. "He only claimed," 
says Linnell, one of his most ardent dis- 
ciples, " the possession of a power that all 
men have, but mostly lose because of their 
vanity and unrighteousness." To see visions 
is, in one sense, but seeing through and not 
with the eye. In another it is the involuntary 
instinctive personifying of abstractions. To 
a lady who asked Blake where he had seen 
certain lambs in a meadow that turned out 
to be sculptured he replied, tapping his fore- 
head, " Here, madam " an answer quite 
sufficient to one who has never realized 
that, for instance, the mechanical droning of 
the Scriptures in church will never inspire 
the people. The point was simply this : 
that with him the spiritual was in all things 
supreme, and the real disaster attending life, 
the only danger of death, lay in dependence 
upon things, the worship of symbols, the 
mistaking the letter for the law, works for the 
faith, and so forth. And throughout his 
life he was sublimely consistent. 

If I had only depended upon mortal things, 
both myself and my wife must have been lost. 
If we fear to do the dictates of our angels, and 
tremble at the tasks set before us ; if we refuse to 
do spiritual acts because of natural fears or natural 



56 The Sanity 

desires, who can describe the torment of such a 
state ! I too well remember the threats 1 heard. 

Crabb Robinson, who loved him so well 
that we must accept all he has to say of the 
prophet's so-called madness, wrote : 

When he said " my vision " it was in the ordinary 
unemphatic tone in which we speak of everyday 
matters. In the same tone he said repeatedly, 
"The Spirit told me." I took occasion to say, 
" You express yourself as Socrates used to do. 
What resemblance do you suppose there is between 
your spirit and his ? " " The same as between 
our countenances." He paused and added, " I 
was Socrates," and then, as if correcting himself, 
"a sort of brother. I must have had conversa- 
tions with him. So I had with Jesus Christ. I 
have an obscure recollection of being with both 
of them." 

And let there be no mistake about the 
spiritual energy necessary for submission 
to these spiritual visitations. Blake was 
no mere sensitive plate of a photographic 
camera, upon which the supposed spirit- 
minds might work their will. He was no 
charlatan or clairvoyant that he should fall 
into a trance and then relate what things had 
taken possession of his passive mind. On 




of William Blake 57 

the contrary, his vision-seeing was the might 
of imagination, the seizing hold of his heart 
by tongues of fire, the carrying of his ac- 
quiescent yet mightily winged soul deep into 
the abyss, out beyond the heights, and always 
to the unfolding of the human mystery. 
How much he suffered over these visions 
none can tell, and only one ever knew. 
This was his Kate. Their courtship was 
this. " Oh, Mr. Blake, I pity you ! " said 
the illiterate tender Catherine Boucher when 
he told of his first and only love-disappoint- 
ment. " You pity me ? " replied the young 
man ; " then I love you ! " 

That was the sowing of the seed. The 
blossoming of the flower must have brought 
joy to the angels ; for night after night, 
for hours at a time, the man would sit 
absorbed in his visions of mystic births, 
battles and destroyings all leaping in fur- 
naces of flame, all peopling the empire 
of the human soul. Within the palaces 
and dungeons of this eternal soul he would 
hear Los, the human God of Purpose, 
towering above the forces of destruction, 
hammering away at his red-hot self-hood, 
the terrific sparks rushing forth to blind the 
cringing fears ; the frozen Urizen hurling 



58 The Sanity 

anathemas upon the man for outdaring his 
iron laws ; Ore, the soul who unweaves the 
nets of tyranny, who snaps the manacles 
that tie men to purposeless submission, and 
ever urges them onwards to their destiny in 
righteous rebellion ; Vala, the Spirit of 
Beauty and Ore's spiritual bride ; Enith- 
armon, the gentle Emanation of Los's 
Spectre, who knew her spouse was greater 
than the works of his Anvil ; Bromion, 
"loving Science" the filthy monster who 
befogs the sunshine into darkness, who 
prostitutes the beautiful and makes it 
people the slimy marsh with horrors. Such 
were his visions, and they brought strivings 
enough and dire anguish to the great soul, 
as he sat lost in the silent hours of the 
night, until at last his eyes would close upon 
their mystic seeing and open upon the 
breaking dawn. And then, when the night's 
battle was over, when the body was weak, 
the face white with suffering, and the eyes 
all a-shining, then would this loving woman 
lead him away by the hand, whose hold she 
had never left in all the dark hours. Out 
into the fields and woods would they go to 
meet the rising sun. And these two together 
would perhaps set out upon a whole day's 



of William Blake 59 

walk before the toil with mundane facts 
could be once more faced. 

But little study of Blake is needed to dis- 
cover the fascination with which he compels 
so many to ardent admiration. And honest 
digging into the mines of his extraordinary 
intellect can hardly fail to convince those 
who search for what is there rather than for 
what they should not want to find that they 
must rank Blake with the prophets of old. 
For prophecy is the message of Eternity to the 
children of Time. And Blake's is a message 
to this our day as surely as it was a hundred 
years ago to an age that heeded him not. 
If his words be madness, then is there no 
hope left for us. If his visions qualified 
him as mentally unfit, then had we best give 
up for ever our ideals, our self-denials, our 
hope in the beautiful, our faith in the true. 



WILLIAM BRENDON AND SON, LTD. 
PRINTERS, PLYMOUTH 



*, 



FEB 1 1 1987